Is Ovechkin dirty or just aggressive?

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How Alex Ovechkin should play hockey for the Washington Capitals has become a white-hot topic of discussion in recent days.

The focus of the conversation seems to be centered on whether Ovechkin needs to change his ways, but maybe it should be on him making sure he has the ability to make such a decision. Ovechkin’s coach and teammates don’t want him to alter his aggressive, hard-hitting style - but they do want him on the ice, and his most recent incident left him injured and suspended.

“I don’t want him to change the way he plays at all,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “When I said ‘reckless’ [on Tuesday], I was using the term in fear of him getting hurt, not him hurting anyone else. He’s got to be him. I don’t want him to change. That’s what makes him one of the three things - one of the best players in the world, one of the best personalities in sports and the reason you pay to watch.”

Added forward Mike Knuble: “When you play close to the edge, things kind of just happen. A lot of times things happen quickly, and I guess as a teammate your concern is with him that he’s putting himself in compromising positions. You don’t want him to get hurt and don’t want him to get suspended, but at the same time what makes him such a great player is he plays at such an intense level.”

Ovechkin was in a sour mood Wednesday, the day after being suspended for two games after a knee-on-knee hit against Carolina’s Tim Gleason. His answers to reporters were short, but he made it clear he’s not about to alter the way he plays.

“I’m not going to change,” he said. “Maybe [the suspension] just get me more angry.”

Those comments came after he went through a full practice at the team’s facility in Arlington. Concerns about a serious knee injury as a result of his collision with Gleason are gone, and he may be ready to play Monday in the first game he’s eligible to return from suspension.

That hasn’t necessarily quelled the concerns about Ovechkin’s long-term ability to stay healthy. In years past, he and other members of the organization have brushed aside questions about his physical play because they could point to his durability - two games missed because of injury in four seasons.

Well, he missed six games with a shoulder injury last month, and the prognosis of “day-to-day with a sore right knee” is considerably more fortunate than what could have come from his fender bender in Raleigh, N.C.

“Anytime you get your leg out, you are making yourself vulnerable as well as the guy you are hitting,” Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said. “It is a dangerous thing to do, especially for a player of that caliber. You don’t like to see players like him missing time. I don’t think it would be to his benefit, though, to keep putting himself in positions like that.”

The general consensus is Ovechkin has no intent to injure other players and is not a dirty player. The line that separates being a fearless, intimidating presence and a dangerous or reckless one can be incredibly thin.

For most of Ovechkin’s five-year NHL career, he has been on the right side of that argument. However, in the past 25 games he has played dating to last postseason, there have been four high-profile incidents involving Ovechkin:

- His knee-on-knee collision with Sergei Gonchar in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.

- His slew-footing of Atlanta’s Rich Peverley on Oct. 22, which drew a $2,500 fine.

- His hit Nov. 25 on Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta, which yielded a five-minute major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct.

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